President Biden’s day one move to rejoin the Paris Agreement breathed new energy into global climate efforts ahead of the pivotal COP26 conference in Glasgow, UK this November. And today the Biden administration announced it will host a virtual Leaders’ Climate Summit on April 22—Earth Day—to showcase domestic progress and rally stronger ambition from world leaders toward COP26. President Biden also committed today to send the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol—which seeks a phase down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—to the Senate for ratification.
U.S. engagement in the Paris Agreement and the Kigali Amendment and the early boost of momentum from the Earth Day summit will begin a new leg in the global race to achieve net-zero emissions. COP26 is important because it marks the five-year litmus test (delayed by one year due to COVID-19) outlined in the Paris Agreement for countries to strengthen their national targets into greater alignment with its objectives. In Paris in 2015, all countries agreed to hold average global temperature increase to 2°C (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, and pursue efforts to hold global temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F).
The Climate Science Imperative of Net-Zero Global Emissions by 2050
Three years after the Paris Agreement, a watershed 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report showed the risks of 2°C of global warming to be significantly greater than those at 1.5°C, prompting the majority of the international community to wholly embrace the Paris Agreement’s more stringent 1.5°C target as the new guiding objective. The IPCC report also found that limiting warming to 1.5°C requires global carbon dioxide emissions to reach net-zero around 2050, along with deep reductions in non-carbon dioxide emissions like methane.
COP26 will provide the first major moment to evaluate collective efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C and achieve net-zero global emissions by 2050 to fend off climate catastrophe. Recent analysis shows the 1.5°C window is narrow and closing as current policies on the books will lead to an average of 2.9°C of global warming (see figure). Delaying the necessary ambition until the next five-year cycle of the Paris Agreement in 2025 could mean missing the window to keep 1.5°C alive. However, realizing the raft of recent net-zero commitments from major emitters could optimistically lead to 2.1°C of warming (see figure)—putting 1.5°C closer within striking distance. Already, more than 125 countries responsible for approximately two-thirds of global emissions have committed to achieve net-zero emissions around midcentury.
Aligning Long-Term Goals with Near-Term Action
However, the true test of COP26—and President Biden’s leaders’ summit along the way—will be the extent to which long-term goals are backed up with near-term targets and concrete action in line with the increasingly urgent climate science. Despite the Paris Agreement’s requirement for all countries to enhance their national climate action plants (called nationally determined contributions or NDCs) every five years, less than 75 countries have submitted new or updated plans to date. Many of the largest emitters have yet to announce a formal strengthened NDC—including the U.S., China, and India. What will it take for these three countries—as well as the European Union and United Kingdom which are beginning to sprint already—to keep pace in the global race to net-zero emissions?
The Biden-Harris administration is already moving quickly to reverse the previous administration’s climate damaging policies and advance a robust whole-of-government agenda to tackle the climate crisis. This will help turn the page on a dark period for U.S. climate engagement that left the international community in the lurch. As such, the U.S. will need to reengage internationally with a healthy dose of humility, as both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Special Presidential Envoy on Climate John Kerry have recently emphasized.
The U.S. must also make up for lost time by leveraging the full suite of tools across all key issues and venues to advance climate action as a central U.S. foreign policy priority – an imperative that is elaborated in today’s executive actions. The core of this agenda for COP26 must include an ambitious 2030 NDC in line with President Biden’s goal of net-zero emissions no later than 2050. Kerry has indicated the new, more ambitious 2030 NDC could be announced by the Earth Day leaders' summit. The agenda must also honor and strengthen the U.S. commitment to the Green Climate Fund—the largest and most innovative fund supporting the Paris Agreement. The U.S. should swiftly fulfill its outstanding $2 billion commitment from the Obama administration (as Kerry has already referred to), and make a new pledge in line with key partners like Germany, France, and the UK to at least double its initial contribution over the coming years. Ahead of COP26, the U.S. also has a unique opportunity to phase out its support for fossil fuels overseas, and transition to advancing a “clean growth first” policy to accelerate investments along with other international partners.
China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for over 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, there is no effective mitigation of climate change without China’s active participation. Over two-thirds of China’s emissions come from coal, making it a critical area for progress to realize the goals of the Paris Agreement. China is expected to release its overall 14th Five-Year Plan in March, with more detailed plans for the energy and electricity sectors expected by the end of the year.
Many observers will be watching to see how China’s 14th Five-Year Plan targets—especially related to coal—align with President Xi’s recent commitment to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 and the 1.5°C global imperative. In this vein, international leaders such as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have encouraged China to reduce its share of coal in total energy consumption to below 50% by 2025 and to limit coal power capacity to no more than 1150 gigawatts by 2025. China also has an opportunity to accelerate the transition away from coal and toward clean energy by capping its carbon dioxide emissions around 10 billion tons per year by 2025. China previewed some initial NDC targets at the end of last year, but it has not yet formalized its revised NDC. China also has an opportunity to align its overseas investments through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with net-zero emissions by scaling up clean energy investments and phasing out fossil fuel investments.
India is the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter. Its per capita emissions are relatively low—only about half the global average—but could grow significantly with increasing energy demand. India is on track to meet two of its three quantified NDC targets for 2030. And it has set ambitious goals to install 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022, and 450 gigawatts by 2030. In addition to aligning sectoral policies—such as on electric vehicles, cooling, and buildings—with the goals of the Paris Agreement, India can outline further supporting policies and measures to accelerate implementation of its commitments. These actions and others can help promote investment in low-carbon and climate resilient development, creating good paying jobs that boost green economic recovery from COVID-19.
European Union and United Kingdom
The European Union has positioned climate action as a core strategic priority, helping to keep international climate efforts afloat in recent years. The European Green Deal is now a central growth strategy with a commitment to climate neutrality by 2050 at its heart. E.U. leaders recently agreed to enhance their 2030 climate target to “at least 55%” reductions from 1990 levels at the end of last year—a significant increase from its initial NDC of “at least 40%” reductions. The European Commission will present a “fit for 55%” legislative package in June to support implementation of its 2030 target. Analysis suggests that achieving its 2030 target will require a near-total phase out of coal—which some jurisdictions have not yet elaborated policies or pledged a slower phase out timeframe—and halving of gas demand (compared to 2019 levels). The EU and its member states must continue to lead on finance, where they provide more than 40% of the world’s public climate finance. Finally, the European Union will seek to use its diplomatic and economic engagement abroad to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuel investments in third countries and toward net-zero emissions.
The United Kingdom recently committed to reduce its emissions by at least 68% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. The UK is also finalizing a ban on international financing for fossil fuels announced in December 2020. It has also pledged to double its initial contribution to the Green Climate Fund. However, the UK cut its foreign aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of its gross national income this year (equivalent to almost $7 billion USD) due to COVID-19—compromising important assistance for developing countries, including those most vulnerable to climate change.
Taking the High Ambition Road to Glasgow
It’s clear that while key leaders are beginning to recognize the opportunities of leading the pack in the global race to net-zero emissions, no major country is yet doing enough to keep the 1.5°C objective in reach. Reaping the benefits of true frontrunner status will require a step change in the pace of the clean energy transition. In a major analysis, NRDC and NewClimate Institute outlined 24 ambitious yet pragmatic steps leaders in key countries and sectors can take to put the world closer to a 1.5°C path by 2030.
COP26 must provide the impetus to accelerate the global pace of action while the window to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis is still narrowly open. As Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry said in his first public remarks, “At the COP in November, all nations must raise ambition together—or we will all fail, together. Failure is not an option.” Now is the time for all leaders to run the high ambition road to Glasgow.